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When Congressman Meyer London died in 1926, half a million New Yorkers attended his funeral. “For six hours,” the New York Times reported, “the [Lower] East Side put aside its duties, pressing or trivial, to do honor to its dead prophet.” Although a politician, London was so respected for his learning–even by his political opponents–that he was buried in the Writer’s Lane section of Mount Carmel cemetery, near the grave of Sholom Aleichem and other Jewish cultural heroes. London’s working-class instincts and intellectual acumen made him advocate for social legislation that later formed the heart of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal platform.
Born in Russia in 1871, Meyer was the eldest son of Ephraim and Rebecca London. Both parents had strong religious upbringings, but Ephraim became enamored with the anarchistic and atheistic doctrines floating around Czarist Russia. He passed these radical ideas to Meyer, who later translated them, in the American political context, into moderate socialism.
A brilliant young student in Russia, Meyer London received a Jewish education at home and secular education as one of the few Jewish boys chosen to attend a Czarist-sponsored gymnasium. Eventually, Meyer developed proficiency in six languages–Russian, Yiddish, English, German, French and Italian.
When Ephraim and Rebecca London emigrated to the Lower East Side of New York in 1888, the teenaged Meyer worked at a library, tutored students in English, and attended law school at night. In 1896, at age 25, Meyer London became a U. S. citizen, passed the bar exam, and ran on the Socialist ticket for the Lower East Side seat in the New York State Assembly.
London chose to enter politics in the heyday of the Democratic Tammany machine, which employed bribery, fraud, and pressure tactics to carry elections. Running as a novice reformer on the Socialist ticket, London predictably lost to the Tammany candidate. London then focused his energies on providing legal services to Lower East Side trade unions like the ILGWU, the International Fur Workers, the Cloak Makers, and the United Hebrew Trades. According to one biographer, “London accepted only such clients and cases as would not interfere with his socialist principles, and he would never take a case involving an arrest.” He preferred to work pro bono on union cases, and, on one occasion, grateful striking union workers had to threaten to drop him as their lawyer if he continued to refuse payment that they believed he richly deserved. From 1905 until his death, London served as legal counsel to the Workman’s Circle.
According to one historian, “London . . . truly believed that the ‘system’ dehumanized the worker, and that without socialism the ‘little guy’ could not possibly stand a chance.” Running for Congress as a Socialist in 1908, 1910 and 1912, he lost to Tammany-backed incumbent Henry Goldfogle, but finally triumphed in 1914–one of the few avowed socialists ever to serve in Congress. In his native Yiddish, London told the crowd at a post-victory rally (with an implied swipe at uptown Jewry) that, “My person will represent an entirely different type of Jew from the kind Congress is accustomed to seeing.”
Once there, London immediately sponsored bills which Congress defeated, yet later became integral elements of the New Deal program: minimum wage, unemployment insurance and increased taxes on the wealthy. He fought for then-radical ideals such as anti-lynching laws, higher immigration quotas, and paid maternity leave. Prescient in his own day, London’s economic proposals became right for the 1930’s and 40’s, and his civil rights proposals became law in the 1960’s.
London’s political ideals were severely challenged by American entry into World War I. As a socialist, London viewed the war as a capitalist struggle at the expense of working people on both sides. In 1917, London cast one of the few votes against American entry into the war. Yet, when Congress approved American participation, London distressed his socialist colleagues by voting to fund it. He explained, “I owe a duty to every man who has been called to the service of his country . . . to provide him with everything he needs [and] to get this fight over as soon as possible.”
At the end of the war, London called for the “removal of the political and civic disabilities of the Jewish people wherever [they] exist.” He supported the Balfour Plan and looked forward to a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Because he once attended a congressional session on Yom Kippur, his Tammany opponent in the 1916 congressional race accused London of not being religious enough. However, the Jewish voters of the Lower East Side overwhelmingly returned him to Congress for another term.
London was defeated in 1918, but won a final congressional term in 1920. At age 55, a taxicab struck him as he crossed Second Avenue. In the ambulance, ever concerned for working people, London made his wife promise not to sue the distraught cab driver. When he died shortly afterwards, his body lay in state at the Forward Building on East Broadway while tens of thousands marched by his coffin to pay their final respects.